Antonio Canova’s plaster statue of a horse was for many years the centrepiece of the Museo Civico di Bassano del Grappa. But in 1969 the museum’s director, Bruno Passamani, requested permission to dismember the 4.5-metre statue, describing it as ‘out of scale compared to the remaining works of both Canova and the entire gallery.’ The Soprintendenza for Galleries and Works of Art in Venice agreed, on condition that the parts be kept ‘in a dry place.’
In 2016 the new director of the Musei Civici, Chiara Casarin, contacted Factum Foundation to ask whether it would be possible to record and digitally restore the horse, whose fragmented body parts had by this time deteriorated significantly. Although the head had been restored and put on display in the museum in 2003, the other parts remained untouched, stored in uncovered wooden crates in the Palazzo Bonaguro. Casarin’s proposal marked the start of an ambitious project not only to create a virtual model of the horse, but also to recreate it as a scale model in bronze. It is hoped that in the near future it will also be possible to rematerialize the restored horse as a full-scale bronze statue, to be displayed in a public space in the town of Bassano del Grappa.
Reference photograph of Canova's original plaster horse in the Museo Civico di Bassano, 1950
The making of the original statue
Canova’s plaster horse has its origins in an equestrian statue of Napoleon, commissioned in 1807 by Napoleon’s brother Giuseppe Bonaparte during his brief tenure as king of Naples. After Napoleon’s defeat and withdrawal from Italy, the statue was redesigned for the new rulers of Naples, the Bourbons: Canova set to work on one statue of Charles III (r.1806-1810) and one of Ferdinand VI (r. 1819-1821). These two statues, both cast in bronze, are now in the Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples. The second statue of Ferdinand, however, had remained unfinished at Canova’s death in 1822; its rider was added by Antonio Calí, who won the competition to complete the work.
The plaster casts of Canova’s two sculptures – the completed group of Charles III on horseback and the horse intended to carry the figure of Ferdinand IV – were sent to the Musei Civici in 1851, gifts of Canova’s half-brother Giovanni Battista Sartori and part of the founding donation of the museum’s Canova collection. However, the sculpture of Charles III was largely destroyed during the bombing of the city in 1945, and in the years following the war the remaining parts were disposed of, leaving only the riderless horse.
The question of ‘original’ and ‘copy’ is never entirely clear-cut in a case such as this; in some senses, this plaster can in fact more accurately be described as Canova’s ‘original’ artwork than can the bronze group. Canova did not cast bronzes himself; we know that for other sculpture groups he modeled sculptures in clay and then took plaster casts of the finished form, subsequently transferring these across into marble or bronze. Where bronze statues like these ones were to be made, the final version which passed through the artist’s own workshop would have been the plaster ‘model’. Moreover, a close inspection of the bronze equestrian statues in the Piazza del Plebiscito reveals several differences of detail between the horse sent to the foundry by Calí and the plaster made by Canova. The bronze statue which would, hypothetically, have resulted from Canova’s designs was, then, never actually realised in the form intended by the artist.
Digital recording in Bassano del Grappa
In February 2018, a recording team from Factum travelled to Bassano del Grappa in order to document all the remaining plaster fragments of the horse in preparation for digital restoration. Over a 10-day period the team worked in the Palazzo Bonaguro, selecting, moving and recording each of the pieces – some of which weigh over 60kg.
Two complementary scanning methods were used for the recording: a Breuckmann white light scanner for pieces with a smoother surface topography, and close-range photogrammetry for sections that required a more complex process of surface mapping, such as the tail. The scanning was conducted at an average resolution of around 250 microns, and for the photogrammetry a Canon 5DSR camera and Sigma 50mm Art 1.4 DSM lens were used. All the images were captured in RAW format (CR2).
Processing and virtual reconstruction
After recording, the data for each fragment was converted into a digital model. Both photogrammetry and structured light scanning operate by identifying millions of separate points on the surface of an object and visualising the whole as a point cloud. The points are then joined together to create a coherent object with a closed surface. You can find out more about this process here.
In some ways, the techniques used by photogrammetry and structured light scanning are the direct successors of Canova’s own modes of carving marble sculptures. Once a plaster sculpture had been modeled, or a cast taken from the clay original, a series of points would be marked on its surface. Using a machinetta di punta (pointing machine), these points would then be transferred to a block of marble – its surface would be drilled into to the point indicated – and once every point had been transferred, the rough outline of the statue would be visible, ready to be finished off by expert sculptors in Canova’s workshop and by the master-sculptor himself. While Canova was criticised for relying on such a mechanical method of ensuring precise reproductions, it was the results of these techniques which made him the most successful sculptor of his age.
Once each of the fragments recorded by Factum had been digitised, all the fragments were brought together into a single file, where they could be fitted together into the single, coherent shape of the horse. However, as many of the plaster fragments have deteriorated with age, their edges no longer align precisely with one another, and in order to fully recreate the equilibrium of the horse’s body it was necessary to 3D print the pieces of the horse as a scale model at 1:10. This small maquette allowed the full physical and anatomical review of the horse, as well as the ability to detect any possible morphological error and easily correct it.
The maquette was then scanned, forming an improved reference for the alignment and position of the virtual model. Working on the software ZBrush, Factum’s 3D sculptor Irene Gaume was now able to establish the correct alignment of the pieces and so to digitally restore the horse, recreating the space between the fragments and remodelling the missing parts where required.
During the final stage of the rebuilding process, the 3D model was directly compared against the few surviving image references kept of the original plaster horse in the museum. Final retouches were made by comparing the perspectives preserved in existing photographs against their counterparts on the digital model, and the balance of the sculpture was corrected so as to facilitate the creation a 1:1 reproduction in the near future.
Casting a model in bronze
The horse has now been rematerialised as a bronze sculpture at a 1:10 scale, while the digital model has been provided to the Musei Civici di Bassano del Grappa, allowing a reconsideration of this extraordinary sculpture by experts and the general public alike.
It is hoped in the future that it will be possible to construct a full size monument in bronze for the city of Bassano del Grappa, allowing Canova’s horse to return to prominent display in the region of the artist’s birth, in a material form which both looks back to the 19th century and, simultaneously, is rooted in the technologies of the 21st.
The team from Factum Arte included Pedro Miró, Guendalina Damone, Otto Lowe, Voula Paraskevi Natsi, Juan Carlos Arias, and Irene Gaumé.
This project was made only possible through the support of Chiara Casarin, Director of the Museo Civico of Bassano del Grappa.